November 29, 2012

Continuity and Change in Fourth Century Christianity

By John Sanidopoulos

Most would say that in all of recorded history, the world has gone through more change in the twentieth century than in any other century. Less so, but not considerably, the period between the end of the third century and the end of the fourth century also appeared to go through significant change. Whereas in the twentieth century industrialization and technology were responsible for the change, in the fourth century it was more so a movement that society embraced unlike any other movement known before.

Christianity was by no means novel by the beginning of the fourth century, but it was a threat to ancient beliefs, systems and practices held sacred by the general population of the Roman Empire. Founded on the shores of Galilee as a movement of inner transformation through repentance and purification to experience the reign of God within, little did anyone know that less than three hundred years later this healing of humanities spiritual maladies would be undertaken by the legislation of the Roman Empire. Having reached such a point of influence, how did Christianity reflect continuity and how did it change in its new historical context?

Many historians have contemplated this question and offered diverse conclusions based on personal presuppositions. Others have tried to be more objective. I will attempt to answer this question based on the primary source readings of Church history.

Church–State Relations

From apostolic times we are informed that there were “saints in Caesar’s household” (Phill. 4:22). We do not know to what extent this initial penetration influenced Church-State relations in the first century, but it appears there was little if any such influence. From its inception Christianity was a persecuted faith dominated by the pagan worldview held by such emperors as Caligula, Nero, and Domitian. The novelty and obscurity of Christian origins, coupled with their worship and devotion to a crucified Roman criminal, gave rise to many misunderstandings that made them an easy target of blame for societal and natural woes. These three emperors, therefore, authorized the first state sponsored localized persecutions that would switch off and on and become more and more fierce and ecumenical over the next two hundred and sixty years.

Different attitudes towards the Roman Empire are evident in the earliest Christian writings. This variety of views persisted into the second and third centuries. Following Romans 13 and Acts, apologists writing in defense of their faith stressed that the Christians were law-abiding citizens, who paid their taxes and prayed for the emperors and the welfare of the Empire. They attempted to demonstrate that those who did not worship the Roman gods could nevertheless be good Romans. Further, they argued that the special connection between the Roman religion and the Roman state should be broken, and that emperors should allow the practice of other religions, such as Christianity.

Some Christian writers claimed that only corrupt emperors had persecuted the Church. Some suggested that the Church and the Roman Empire might have a common destiny; they began together (Jesus was born in the reign of the first Emperor, Augustus) and prospered together. They claimed that the peace won by the Emperor - the Pax Romana – was God-given to facilitate the spread of Christianity, “the philosophy which goes with the Empire” (Melito).

Tertullian was less optimistic. He believed that the whole fabric of social and public life was fouled by idolatry. It was unthinkable that a Christian should enter the imperial service, let alone be an emperor. North African Christians generally displayed a more scornful and defiant attitude to Roman power. In AD 180 one of the martyrs of Scillium declared: “I do not recognize the empire of this world.”

During the first half of the third century it became fashionable to combine the worship of different gods in one religion. Some of the emperors showed a particular interest in Christianity. The Emperor Alexander Severus reputedly included a representation of Jesus among the statues in his chapel. His mother had contact with Hippolytus and Origen, who also corresponded with Emperor Philip the Arabian and his wife.

But Christianity first became the religion of kings and princes outside the Roman Empire. Royal families adopted it in Edessa, one of the chief centers of Syriac-speaking Christianity, in the early third century, and in Armenia and Georgia a century later.

The last great empire-wide persecution of Christians began in 303, known as the Diocletian Persecution. Although it is called the "Diocletian Persecution" because it was under his watch and he co-signed the decree, it was primarily Galerius who was responsible for the worst persecution the Church had ever experienced. Galerius convinced Diocletian that for the unity of the Empire, Christians had to be exterminated, and in successive decrees there were hundreds of soldier martyrs, such as St. Sebastian who was shot through with arrows, St. Demetrios of Thessaloniki  and St. George. All Christian books had to be handed over; all clerics jailed; and finally all Christians who refused to sacrifice to the gods were to be killed. The number of Christian martyrs is incalculable, especially in the East.

Lactantius’ De mortibus persecutorum and Eusebius’ The Martyrs of Palestine deal with this period. Lactantius wrote his treatise with the intent of providing a useful tool of reference to show how God sent judgement to the enemies of the Church, namely the Roman Emperors prior to Constantine, and in turn brought peace and flourishment to the Church with the conversion of the Empire. According to Eusebius, the Empire was rent in two due to this persecution. While in the West the persecution lasted two years, in the East it went on for eight. According to Lactantius, it was ten years and about four months until the Edict of Milan in 313 was signed by Licinius and Constantine. The Church thus went from persecuted to tolerated.

With the conversion of Constantine in 312 and his victory over Licinius at the battle of Adrianople, the relationship between the Church and State changed. From being persecuted the Church now started to become privileged. Sunday was recognized as a day of rest in honor of the Lord’s day (321), military prayer to the one true God was enforced (321), churches were repaired and constructed (324), and most importantly the First Ecumenical Synod of Nicea was called in 325 to deal with the Arian heresy and the Paschal controversy to bring unity and conformity to the Christians of the Empire. According to Constantine’s Edict on Behalf of All Christians in 324, Constantine saw himself as God’s servant called to heal the ills of persecution and heresy in the Empire by providing an environment for the Church to prosper. He did this to the point where he moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople.

The Office of the Bishop

In the first three centuries of Christianity, when trouble arose in a local church, the bishop was held responsible by the local Roman authorities. This is clear from the writings of Polycarp, Ignatius and Cyprian of Carthage. During periods of peace, they were expected to keep order in the Church and foster respect for the authority of Rome. With the numerous controversies, schisms and heresies in the early Church, these bishops fought to keep unity and order in the Church based on their apostolic authority and succession. Bishops convened in synods to settle these disputes, but it was always difficult to achieve total conformity while being so scattered and underprivileged within the Empire.

With the edicts issued by Constantine, the role of the bishop altered in the fourth century. First of all, African clerics were exempted from public duties in 313 in order to dedicate all their power to worshiping the Divinity so that the Church and the Empire may both prosper. Also that year Christian bishops were authorized to judge ecclesiastical affairs. At the same time, Constantine himself entered into episcopal affairs in regards to the Donatist schism in order to ensure that there be no schism or division within the Catholic Church. He convoked a large synod of bishops at Arles in Gaul to repair the schism at governmental expense. In 316 a fourth method of manumission was added whereby slaves could be freed within the assembly of the Church as long as a bishop was present. The episcopal rank was further elevated in 318 to the status of judges allowing litigants to transfer suits from civil judges to bishops, whose verdicts were recognized as final. In 319 clerical exemption from public duties was extended to southern Italy, which thus constituted another step in the spread of this concession throughout the Empire. Clerical exemption from taxation was conferred in 320 to all bishops from the various provinces.

In his oration on synodal procedure for the First Ecumenical Synod in 325, Constantine set the standard by which most later Roman Emperors were to view the episcopal rank:

God has appointed you as bishops and has given to you the power of judging also about us; and, therefore, we rightly are judged by you, but you cannot be judged by men. And on this account await the judgment of God alone among you and to that divine investigation let your quarrels, whatsoever they are, be reserved. For you also have been given to us by God as gods and it is not suitable that man should judge gods, but He alone, about whom it has been written: “God has stood in the congregation of the gods; moreover in the midst He judges among the gods.” And, therefore, after these matters have been dismissed, apart from any contention of spirits decide those things which pertain to the faith of God. (Rufinus)

Though Constantine held the episcopal office in such high esteem, it was not uncommon for Constantine and other later Emperors to interfere in episcopal affairs. This is evidenced in his letters preserved by Eusebius from 330 in which Constantine opposes the transfer of Eusebius from the see of Caesarea to Antioch. Yet this was never legislated, only suggested. No doubt it was suggested for the good of the Church in Caesarea.

One of the most telling incidents of how emperors entered into episcopal affairs is related by Athanasius in his Apologia Contra Arianos. Athanasius, as a champion of Orthodoxy in the see of Alexandria, was often conspired against by Arians and Eusebians. When matters became hopeless, one or the other would appeal to the emperor to interfere in the matter and settle disputes. In the mid-fourth century, the fate of Athanasius was in the hands of emperors. If they leaned towards the Arian bishops, Athanasius was exiled; if they leaned towards Orthodoxy, Athanasius was reinstated to his episcopal rank in Alexandria.

Another incident is recorded by the historian Socrates. Around 379 Gregory of Nazianzus was elevated to the episcopal rank in Constantinople. The forty churches of Constantinople had been overrun by Arians and he was forced to assemble in a small oratory he called Anastasia. When the Orthodox Emperor Theodosius returned from Thessalonica, Gregory was satisfied enough to resign his bishopric and allow the emperor to reinstitute Orthodoxy within the city. The forty churches were returned, a new Orthodox bishop was elevated, the Arians were exiled, and peace was restored to the city. In order to legislate the situation, the emperor immediately called for the Second Ecumenical Synod to be convened in Constantinople in 380.

Theodosius shared the piety and great reverence towards the episcopal rank held by his predecessor Constantine. One such bishop he held particular esteem for was Ambrose of Milan. In the winter of 388/9, rioters at Callinicum burnt a synagogue and a meeting place of the Valentinians. Theodosius had ordered the synagogue rebuilt and the trial and punishment of the perpetrators. Ambrose protested this decision of Theodosius to preserve unity in the Church, and the Emperor withdrew the order. Again in 390 Theodosius ordered a large number of civilians to be massacred in Thessalonica in retaliation for the killing in a riot of the Gothic general Butheric. Ambrose advised the emperor that he would not commune him if he did not repent of this act. Theodosius complied and came to church until Christmas without his imperial robes, when he was again allowed to commune. These incidents again reveal how much authority was relegated to the bishops in ecclesiastical affairs, as long as bishops like Ambrose were bold enough to reprimand and offer sound counsel to the emperors.

Another such courageous bishop of the late fourth century was John Chrysostom. The Emperor Arcadius and Empress Eudoxia at the time, though Orthodox, were involved in an extravagant lifestyle. Chrysostom launched a crusade against excessiveness and extreme wealth which the Empress construed as a personal affront to her and her royal court. This, along with the false accusers who were jealous of his rank, caused his exile. He was restored after a lot of clamor and protests. Chrysostom delivered a sermon in which he deplored the adulation of a frenzied crowd at the unveiling of a public statue of the Empress Eudoxia. His sermon was grossly exaggerated by his enemies, and by the time it reached the ears of the Empress it resulted in his permanent exile from his beloved city of Constantinople.

Thus throughout the fourth century there occurred a tremendous change of status for bishops within the Roman Empire. By the end of the fourth century, the Patriarch of Constantinople was second in imperial rank only to the Emperor. The Emperor was bishop of those outside the Church while the bishops were bishops of those within the Church.


The monastic ideal has its source in the prophets and apostles. Virginity was always held in high esteem from what Christ and the Apostle Paul taught in the New Testament. Communities of female virgins were fairly common in the first three centuries of the Church, and asceticism was practiced privately by all. The title of “first monk” is usually ascribed to Paul the Hermit who fled to the mountains during the Decian Persecution in the mid-third century. No doubt there were other such hermits, but Paul is one who survived when he met Anthony, the father of monks, in the early fourth century.

Anthony is considered the father of anchoritic monasticism in Northern Egypt. In Egypt, it was common for ascetics to live in huts, in the outskirts of the towns and villages, and this was the common practice in about 270, when Anthony withdrew from the world. He began his career by practicing the ascetical life in this fashion without leaving his native place. He used to visit the various ascetics, study their lives, and try to learn from each of them the virtue in which they seemed to excel. Then he took up his abode in one of the tombs, near his native village, and there it was that the Life records those strange conflicts with demons in the shape of wild beasts, who inflicted blows upon him, and sometimes left him nearly dead. After fifteen years of this life, at the age of thirty-five, Anthony determined to withdraw from the habitations of men and retire in absolute solitude. He crossed the Nile, and on a mountain near the east bank, then called Pispir, now Der el Memum, he found an old fort into which he shut himself, and lived there for twenty years without seeing the face of man, food being thrown to him over the wall. He was at times visited by pilgrims, whom he refused to see; but gradually a number of would be disciples established themselves in caves and in huts around the mountain. Thus a colony of ascetics was formed, who begged Anthony to come forth and be their guide in the spiritual life. At length, about the year 305, he yielded to their importunities and emerged from his retreat, and, to the surprise of all, he appeared to be as when he had gone in, not emaciated, but vigorous in body and mind.

Fourth century monasticism became more organized. Such organization started with Pachomius. Raised a pagan, he encountered Christians while serving in the army. He left the army, was baptized, undertook charitable work for a while, and then in 316 withdrew into the desert to live the life of a hermit. In 320 he decided to found a community where monks would live together. This foundation marked the beginning of cenobitic monasticism. He wrote a monastic rule, and this rule influenced the later rules that governed other monasteries and territories.

Whereas there was change in Christianity with regards to Church-State relations and the office of the bishop, there was an evolutionary continuity in monasticism that probably would have developed similarly had not the Empire converted to Christianity. Some would argue that Christians had a death wish following the persecutions that caused the widespread popularity of monasticism in the fourth century. I would disagree with this conclusion and argue that the widespread popularity of monasticism was the result of the success it had in helping Christians live authentic spiritual lives. The freedom afforded by Constantine allowed for the dissemination of monastic texts by pilgrims and exiles that helped raise the awareness of monasticism. In essence, when people heard about it, it just made sense and aroused curiosity.

Popular Religious Expressions

Similar to monasticism, popular religious expressions such as pilgrimage and martyr veneration were expressions of an evolutionary continuity between the first three centuries of Christianity and the fourth century. In the text known as The Martyrdom of Polycarp dated to the second century, for example, there is a clear expression of martyr veneration by the local faithful paid to Polycarp’s relics. We also have early Christian accounts of pilgrimage. With the freedom granted to Christians in the fourth century, Constantine allowed for the building of churches over the sites of Christian martyrs to be rebuilt and built, and most importantly the sites in the Holy Land were excavated and churches such as the Holy Sepulchre were built to encourage pilgrimage. The Pilgrimage of Egeria reveals how popular and organized such pilgrimages had become, even for women.


Things get a little tricky when trying to determine the continuity or discontinuity of paganism within the Roman Empire of the fourth century. We know that it continued in some form or another and it was still fairly popular. However, there were constant conflicts between the Christians and the pagans until the sixth century.

Especially in Rome, which was the home of the staunchly conservative members of the Senatorial class, paganism was still active at the end of the fourth century. It was then that Theodosius issued edicts banning paganism and making Christianity the official religion of Rome. Old Rome did not want to give up their piety to their ancestral cults. This is best represented by a famous debate between the pagan Symmachus and Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, over the maintenance of the Altar of Victory. Dating back to Roman Republican days and located in the Roman Senate, the Altar of Victory was one of the most important symbols of paganism. Constantius II in 357 had removed it, but most likely Julian the Apostate had it restored. Gratian in 382 tolerated the pagans of Rome, but renounced the title of pontifex maximus, thus in effect abolishing the headship of the pagan state religion. In 384 Valentinian II had the Altar of Victory officially removed. In the East, Theodosius banned paganism in general.


Was there continuity or change in fourth century Christianity? I think the best answer to this question is that the essence of Christianity remained the same, but its situation and status within the Empire changed. If Constantine had not converted to Christianity, the office of the bishop and the role of the Church within the Empire may not have evolved the way it did. It took action to effect the change. The same could partly be said about paganism. But when it comes to Christian practices and expressions, I believe there was an evolutionary continuity that occurred with the help of the Empire’s new toleration and acceptance of Christianity, but did not hinge on it.

(Written in 2006)